America's wars tend to become tar babies. We put our hands into an overseas situation; they become gooey, stuck in complexity; then we can't bear to extract ourselves from the grimy mess.
One unfortunate and expensive aspect of this phenomenon is that we don't seem able to bring our forces home after a war is over.
World War II ended in 1945. The United States still has 52,000 troops in Germany, 49,000 in Japan and 10,000 in Italy, 66 years later. All sorts of imaginative arguments are put forward to support their continued presence -- to provide regional security, to deter common enemies, to act as a tripwire, whatever. But Johnny doesn't come marching home.
Nor have U.S. forces left South Korea. That war ended in 1953. There are still 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there.
One place we didn't leave troops was Vietnam -- because we lost.
Now we are enmeshed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Iraq, where the war began in 2003, has 48,000 American troops. Afghanistan, which started in 2001, has 100,000. We don't know how many U.S. forces are in Libya because our government hasn't chosen to tell us, or even to call it a war. This avoids involving Congress and an examination of its rationale that observing legal procedures, notably the War Powers Act, would oblige.
So, instead of clean withdrawals to bring U.S. wars to an end, Americans are forced to watch and pay for endless, expensive occupations. Long, drawn-out screeches might come from taxpayers if they understood what was going on, but successive Republican and Democratic administrations pay no attention to calls for peace dividends.
In 2008 President George W. Bush negotiated and signed with the Iraq government a status-of-forces agreement that provided for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. As the date draws nigh, some Iraqis -- specifically those whom the United States was instrumental in putting in power and who thus have a stake in the status quo -- are suggesting that maybe all U.S. forces shouldn't leave by Dec. 31. They cite internal security, hostile neighbors and the like. There also is the delicate question of the United States continuing to pour money into Iraq after American troops leave.
It is fully predictable that Iraqis with an interest in U.S. forces staying would begin to say how nice it would be if they did. What is not acceptable is that some senior U.S. military and political figures, starting with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are telling the Iraqis publicly that we would be glad to stay if they would just ask.
Such pleas and offers do not reflect the point of view of most Americans, who are ready to wind up this frustrating, expensive, eight-year-old war. The Iraq war may still be beloved of defense industry contractors, congressmen and senators who take their campaign donations and four-star military officers, but the average American is very tired of spending money and losing lives in Iraq.
The truly ironic aspect of the stay-or-leave Iraq debate is that we will probably be forced to leave because the occupation government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is afraid to negotiate an extension of U.S. forces because of the unbending opposition of anti-American fellow Shiite Moktada al-Sadr. So we will be able to do what we should do for good American reasons -- leave -- through the obdurate opposition to our staying of our most openly bitter enemy in Iraq.
It probably isn't necessary to use much space to indicate why most Americans believe we should withdraw our 100,000 troops from Afghanistan, beginning in July as President Barack Obama promised. Al-Qaida there is greatly reduced; its leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead; Pakistan as a base for the American war in Afghanistan is "bust;" and most Afghans are ready to cut a deal with the Taliban, for at least part of the country to achieve peace after 10 years of destruction, mayhem and danger.
There again, pitted on the other side of a "clean withdrawal," are U.S. defense contractors, U.S. generals, the national security industry crowd and the thousands of Afghans on the U.S. payroll. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan costs at least $100 billion a year.
Libya, a newer war, and Mr. Obama's very own undeclared, incomprehensible conflict, is also already stringing on long past its "sell-by" date. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has helpfully told us that it has cost about $750 million to date. He can foresee no end to it. (Where have we heard this before?)
This war is allegedly justified by the need to protect Libyan civilians. (That's why NATO killed three of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's grandchildren.) It is supposed to illustrate NATO's relevance and coherence. (Three countries and the United States out of 28 NATO members are engaged in Libya.)
Now, the still-divided, undisciplined, militarily incompetent rebel Libyans, unable even with heavy NATO air and ground support to gain much ground, are busily engaged in what such operations tend to evolve into. They are asking for big money.
They robbed the Gadhafi government's central bank of $200 million, but claim they need $30 billion from international donors, plus Libya's frozen assets. (How else are the rebellion's leaders to build up their offshore bank accounts for when it is time to bail out?)
In Benghazi, their "capital," night-roaming death squads are murdering former Gadhafi officials. (This is supposedly being done in the name of the justice they plan to bring to the place once NATO has put them in power.)
Again, why are we doing this in Libya? And continuing to try to run Iraq and Afghanistan?
The sharp budget debates in Washington are making it clear to Americans where our priorities should lie. They certainly do not lie in Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli or Benghazi.
Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( email@example.com , 412 263-1976).